Was my female ancestor a suffragist?
Suffragists fought for the right of women to vote. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave them that right, was ratified on August 18, 1920.
Below are research strategies to seek out your ancestor in the Library of Congress holdings and those of other repositories, particularly at the state and local levels where the majority of suffragists were the most involved.
Library of Congress Collections and Exhibits
The Library of Congress is home to significant, historical material related to the suffrage movement in the United States, including the special exhibit, "Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote." The exhibit has a virtual counterpart and research guide that you may view online. These include links to original papers that belonged to suffragists and suffrage organizations, as well as photographs, historical accounts, and more.
Library of Congress Digital Collections:
Library of Congress Exhibit:
Library of Congress Research Guide:
Library of Congress Subject Heading(s):
Suffrage Organization Archives
Each suffrage organization had philosophies and action plans. Knowing which one(s) your ancestor belonged to will help you to understand her perspective. Also investigate the positions of any social club, political party, religious affiliation, or other organization where your ancestor was a member for insights into how she may have viewed suffrage, whether or not she joined a suffrage-focused group.
The most well-known suffrage organizations were the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), which merged in 1890 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association Records (NAWSA). After the 19th Amendment passed in 1920, NAWSA merged with the National Council of Women Voters to form the League of Women Voters, which is still active today.
Similarly, the Afro-American Women and the National League of Colored Women merged in 1896. With Mary Church Terrell as their first president, these groups became the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). In 1904, NACW became known as the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (NACWC). Their work to overcome the particular challenges women of color face in the fight for equal rights continues today.
As the movement evolved, these groups continued to merge, adapt, or split. A prominent example of the latter, occurred in 1917, when Alice Paul broke away from NAWSA to form the National Woman's Party (NWP). Other groups, though not specifically created to fight for suffrage, supported the cause too. These organizations, such as the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), became important allies.
Documents that identify members are most likely to be preserved in archived administrative papers related to these and other similar groups. You will also want to pursue collections that pertain to the appropriate state-level organizations and local chapters in the county or community where your ancestor lived. The national movements spotlighted a handful of top leaders, but the majority of the work happened with the boots-on-the-ground suffragists who promoted the cause in their own neighborhoods and regions. If you do not find actual membership rosters in these collections, there will be great alternatives and other valuable material to explore such as meeting minutes, correspondence, newsletters, programs, etc. that could indicate your ancestor or her neighborhood and so on.
In addition to the Library of Congress collections and resources listed above, a wonderful tool for locating archival collections across repositories is ArchiveGrid External. Search results will describe the collections and tell you where they are housed. You can then contact the repository to arrange a visit or ask about the material. This resource is particularly good for finding the lesser known collections that may be archived at universities or historical societies.
Note that most archival collections do not have every-name indexes. You need to find the collections that seem like good fits and then look through them for your ancestor's name or community.
Local newspapers may also provide an excellent source of information. Often suffragist activities were reported and members may be identified or quoted. In November 1920, many articles were written about the first women at the polls on election day, sometimes profiling them in detail.
The Library of Congress provides free access to Chronicling America, a wonderful collection of historic newspapers. It's important to find the newspapers local to your ancestor's neighborhood. If those hometown papers are not yet posted to Chronicling America, you can use the U.S. Newspaper Directory to see which repositories house the archives. You can also contact the Library of Congress Newspapers and Periodicals Reading Room to learn about additional publications and resources. Finally, reach out to repositories in the appropriate state, particularly near your ancestor's home, that may have local newspaper issues.
Poll Taxes and Voter Registrations
Find out if she paid her poll tax and registered to vote. Poll taxes were generally filed with property taxes at the local level. This may seem misleading because property ownership was not required in order to be an eligible voter in 1920, but that office was usually where fees were paid. Likewise, voter registrations were processed locally and should be in the custody of the county elections office.
There are limitations to poll tax and voter registration records because, in spite of the Amendment, not everyone was given an equal opportunity to participate. Women of color, like men of color, were forced to overcome intentional obstacles such as literacy tests and the poll tax itself. If your ancestor does not appear as a registered voter, you may want to dig deeper into the local history of their town, county, and state to determine what tactics may have inhibited their opportunity to register to vote.
These records also do not tell you how your female ancestor felt about being enfranchised, but whether or not she registered to vote or tried to register to vote, in the first election for which she was Constitutionally eligible, is a relevant part of her story and place in history.
Additional Ways to Contact Us
Send written correspondence to:
Researcher and Reference Services Division
101 Independence Ave. SE
Thomas Jefferson Building, LJ 100
Washington, D.C. 20540-4660
The staff of the Library of Congress cannot undertake research in family history or heraldry. In order to perform work of this nature satisfactorily, it is necessary to identify a particular branch of the family concerned, and, because of the time and effort involved, searches for this kind of information usually require the services of a professional genealogist or heraldic searcher.